We’ve reported on the many ways in which mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can affect our lives. Now a group of scientists are beginning to investigate the inner lives of animals (as opposed to humans) for this, including potential signs of mental illness. Maybe your pet has been acting strangely following the death of another pet or is displaying tendencies that are unusual – overly licking its paws or nose, for example. While these simply might be ‘quirks’ displayed by our beloved pets, researchers argue that these are signs of something bigger going on.
According to the BBC, some researchers have argued that there are observable behaviours in animals that look a lot like the behaviours in humans with certain mental health issues: There are pet birds that pluck out their own feathers, dogs that won’t quit licking their tails or paws, and bonobos that pull out their hair. Some military dogs that have been in combat may even show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as a dramatic change in temperament.
But even more recently, some scientists have started to investigate the idea on a genetic level, and their results suggest that in some animals, much like in humans, the effects of isolation can be serious. Writer Shreya Dasgupta explained: “It seems that animal mental health issues can be triggered by many of the same factors that unleash mental illness in humans. That includes the loss of family or companions, loss of freedom, stress, trauma and abuse. This is most easily seen in animals that are held in captivity.”
In a 2011 study, scientists found signs of depression and PTSD in chimpanzees that had been used in laboratory research, orphaned, trapped by snares, or been part of an illegal trade. Also, in 2014, researchers found that African Grey parrots that were housed alone suffered more genetic damage than parrots that were housed in pairs.
Researchers acknowledged that more research had to be done as they confirmed that it was still “difficult to tell if a seemingly abnormal behaviour is a sign of illness, or just out of the ordinary. In many cases, we don’t know enough about what constitutes ‘normal behaviour’ to decide.” Arguably, most pet owners can tell when their furry friends are out of sorts, but what scientists are questioning is how deep this goes. Is your animal just having an off day? This particular set of researchers would argue the contrary; that many animals can truly suffer from mental health issues, as humans can. They might not display these tendencies the same way (obviously), but they still very much exist.
“Far from being something limited to pampered modern humans, mental illness can strike many kinds of animals and seems to have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Just like seemingly more physical disorders like cancer, it can be traced back to mechanical things such as genes and proteins within our cells,” the researchers added.
Though this research is at an early stage, it’s going to be interesting to see how it develops.
What are your thoughts on this fellow pet owners?